Updated: Jan 30
There are countless books, articles, and podcasts that explore the Christian, and particularly Catholic, philosophy that underlies J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Aside from the fundamentalist recluse who shrieks at any mention of magic or the rigid dogmatic rationalist who only recognizes theology in the form of a confession or missal, it is well recognized in the Christian community that Tolkien's writings are full of Christian themes, virtues, and types.
Gandalf dies and returns in glory. Samwise serves his master and friend with loyalty and sacrifice. Salvation comes from the relatively obscure and (pun-intended) lowly Shire. The rightful king takes his place and brings healing to the land. But, are we reading too much of what we want to see into this? Should we be bothered by the fact that The Lord of the Rings lacks any kind of clear, organized religion? Or the fact that a host of deities are mentioned (in The Lord of the Rings, particularly Varda)? Could it be that the tales of Middle-earth are not only not Christian, but actually antithetical to the Christian faith? This is the argument made by Jonathan Poletti in a recent article that has been making its rounds on the internet.
Poletti touches on a number of topics that cannot substantially be addressed in one blog post, so I'm going to limit my scope in this response. I initially set out to go point-by-point, but it soon became clear that this article would end up being far longer than I believe should be the case with a blog post. As I have time, this will become a series of posts on this subject matter, but for now I am solely going to focus on the the story itself rather than Tolkien's broader religious outlook, literary philosophy, or biographical details.
Before you go on, I suggest that you give Poletti's article a read. You can find it here: https://medium.com/belover/no-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-isn-t-christian-a7d3b34b7677
Religion in The Silmarillion
His first charge against the supposed Christianity of The Lord of the Rings is the lack of religion in Middle-earth. To this point, he quotes literary critic Edmund Fuller, who writes, “In this story there is no overt theology or religion. There is no mention of God. No one is worshipped. There are no prayers.” If you look at the context from which this quote comes, it is evident that Fuller is actually making the exact opposite point from what this small excerpt appears to be saying. With that in mind, we'll maintain Poletti's intended meaning and just pretend these are his own words.
I will begin with the easy response of looking to The Silmarillion. In his article, Poletti argues this is illegitimate because it is a "late book," but anyone who knows anything about Tolkien knows this is absurd. Yes, it was published late, but the material itself far predates The Lord of the Rings.
The opening section of The Silmarillion, The Ainulindalë, is the creation story of Tolkien's world. The first sentence is as follows: “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.”
So, from the very first sentence, we find that there is one Creator who made the Ainur, the members of the divine council that enact - or attempt to thwart - Eru's creative design. The Ainur are not themselves timeless, but are created beings. Eru is the only uncreated, eternal being in Tolkien's legendarium. Thus, from the earliest point in his story, Tolkien establishes a clear monotheism. In ridiculously clear refutation to Poletti and his supporting critics, Middle-earth not only has a god, but this God is the ultimate being and the ultimate protagonist of the entire meta-narrative.
The Ainulindalë is a beautiful telling of the creation of the world through song, as the music of the Ainur, in symphonic response to Eru's beauty, weaves a vision of what the world would look like when Eru brought it into being. However, Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, began to sing a different tune. Desiring to exalt himself rather than Eru, he emits his own melody and seduces several of the other Ainur to join in his song. As this contest of melodies escalates, Eru weaves them together into something even more beautiful, bending Melkor's melody to amplify the good song. Eru then explains to Melkor:
“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”
With a clear presentation of felix culpa theology, Tolkien insists on Eru's wisdom, goodness, and providence, even over evil. The Christian philosophy expressed throughout this opening section leaps off every page of the The Ainulindalë with such vigor that it could only be missed by those who have no acquaintance with Christian thought. If you need more convincing, read this section alongside Book XIV of Augustine's City of God, in which he writes, “This then is the original evil: man regards himself as his own light, and turns away from that light which would make man himself a light if he would set his heart on it.”
I could run throughout The Silmarillion, demonstrating its theological dimensions, and particularly Akallabêth, a section toward the end which tells of the organized worship of Eru in Numenor, which is then twisted through the influence of Sauron, the chief lieutenant of Melkor (then referred to as Morgoth). However, to focus more intently on the charge made by Poletti's article, I'll turn my attention to The Lord of the Rings.
The Piecing Light of Heaven
To be fair, I can't recall a single time that Eru Ilúvatar is mentioned by name in The Lord of the Rings. It's possible it's there somewhere, but, if nothing else, it's safe to say that the theology of The Lord of the Rings is not as explicit as it is in The Silmarillion. However, this should not be surprising when you consider the significantly different scope between the two texts. The Silmarillion tells of the creation of the world and spans a great deal of time, focusing on episodic narratives amidst a grand metanarrative. To this extent, The Silmarillion bears literary semblance to the Old Testament. The Lord of the Rings, however, follows the tale of particular individuals over a fairly short amount of time. In other words, The Lord of the Rings prioritizes lived experience.
Generally speaking, Christians don't see spiritual realities in explicit terms, as if they were objects in the world alongside material realities. Hope in ultimate divine goodness is not always readily available, but, through the shadows of this often brutal, despairing life, the light of heaven shines through for those with eyes to see. These themes of holding onto hope in faith, and of heavenly light piercing the veil of this world run throughout The Lord of the Rings. Consider the elven devotion to Varda (Elebreth) , the Lady of the Stars whose light gives aid against the Shadow of the enemy. Even Frodo, when confronting the Nazgûl at Weathertop, cries out to Varda with, "O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" (O Elbereth, Starkindler), using words that are not quite his own. The stars are presented as beacons of everlasting hope amidst the ever-darkening world of change. When Frodo and Sam are passing through the shadowy Minas Morgul on their path to Mordor, despair all but takes them until Sam's reserve is rekindled with the light of heaven in the following beautiful, iconic passage:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Yes, this world often seems to be harsh and godless, but, even if only once in a while, heavenly light pierces the veil and reminds us that beauty and goodness are eternal while the Shadow is only a small and passing thing.
For one more demonstration along similar lines, consider Frodo's battle with the spidery Shelob, who is related to the light-consuming Ungoliant of The Silmarillion. What is Frodo's chief weapon against this monster of darkness? It is, of course, the heavenly light, the phial of Galadriel given to him in Lothlórien. This phial exudes light from the Star of Eärendil, lit by the Silmaril that contains light from the trees of Valinor, which illumined the world before sun and moon. It is this light of eternal goodness expressed at the dawn of creation that is used to drive back the shadowy, nihilistic Shelob. Oh, and to further drive in the fundamentally spiritual nature of this fight, let's see what happens when Frodo reveals the phial: "'Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima!' he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit." As Frodo turned to the Light in this despairing battle, something came over him to compel a heavenly praise. One can only miss the spiritual reality of this contest with intentionality or utter ignorance.
How do I know that this luminary hope hints at a Christian worldview rather than pagan spirituality or a vague optimism? Whether we are speaking of the light of the Silmaril or the light of Varda, we're ultimately talking about a link to the Valar, who are themselves emissaries of Ilúvatar, the One God to whom belongs the Imperishable Flame, which is something like his ontological independence from which comes created things.
As I said, I don't believe that Ilúvatar is explicitly mentioned in the Lord of the Rings. However, his providential presence is unmistakable for those who pay attention while reading. Near the beginning of the story, in the magnificent chapter "The Shadow of the Past," Gandalf explains to Frodo some of the history of the One Ring as it passed from Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo to Frodo:
"There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur's hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought form Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire! Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."
It is no great wonder that the history of the Ring is influenced by Sauron, the Ring-maker. However, Gandalf insists that there is another Power at work - a power that is ultimately in charge, even over the devices of the Enemy. It is this stronger, wiser Power that determines what should happen, what is to be. What could this Power possibly be, other than Eru Ilúvatar, who orchestrates even the melodies of Melkor into his grand and good design? The Ainulindalë gives us the theology that we see played out in The Lord of the Rings.
Now fast-forward to the destruction of the Ring at Mount Doom. Who is it that is actually able to destroy the Ring and thereby prove to be the ultimate protagonist of the story? It isn't Frodo, who, in the final moments, succumbs to the Ring's lure and decides to keep it for himself. To be clear, I still think it's appropriate to consider Frodo to be the hero, or one of the chief heroes, of the story. Tolkien maintained this as well, but that takes us off the current course. The Ring is destroyed as Gollum gets a hold of it and falls into a final act of despairing self-destruction. So, who then is to credit for victory against the Enemy? It is, of course, Eru Ilúvatar, who turned the twisted intentions of the Shadow unto the victory of the Light.
The Fundamentally Religious Nature of The Lord of the Rings
Poletti writes, "Tolkien went on to become a religiously disruptive writer. His Middle-Earth offers a vision of a godless society, in which beings make decisions on their own, rather than through appeal to a deity."
Let's evaluate this claim about the autonomy of Tolkien's characters by considering the nature of his Enemies. What is the source of Melkor's evil? Sauron's? Saruman's? Gollum's? Denethor's? Or literally any other villain (including villains with some redemptive qualities)? They all worshiped themselves. They made decisions on their own, rather than even implicitly appealing to the Deity. The Lord of the Rings is simply not about the freedom of the autonomous individual, mustering up their own strength to conquer evil. The Lord of the Rings is not about individual freedom or self-expression or autonomy. The story is most certainly antithetical to these concepts if they are understood in secular terms. No, The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a book about worship. How can I be sure that I'm not just stretching to appropriate a secular text into a Christian worldview? Let's see what Tolkien has to say:
“In The Lord of the Rings, the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom,’ though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Númenóreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination.” - Tolkien, Letter 183
I have only selected a few demonstrations of Tolkien's Christian philosophy clearly evident in his story. Yes, The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory. It isn't Narnia, in which Aslan almost explicitly claims to be Jesus. Pureflix won't make any movies out of Tolkien's work because Tolkien wasn't interested in making superficial Christian propaganda. He was a storyteller interested in enchanting his audience with true tales. Of course I don't mean that elves and hobbits literally walked our world, but they are true in that they more explicitly communicate in a secondary world truths which exist more implicitly in our own world. To an extent, I must agree with Poletti that Christian entertainment is generally uncreative, dull, and lazy. It is often ideology thinly veiled with a story rather than a story that communicates something Real, enchanting the audience to discover what, on some level of the human experience, they know already know to be true. So yes, as one example, Tolkien does not include a singular Christ figure, but he does include several types of Christ, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. He writes in Letter 142: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."
Poletti references this quote to argue that The Lord of the Rings is not actually a fundamentally religious work because Tolkien said he was not consciously aiming to make it such. This is a weird argument. If anything, Poletti might have a stronger case if Tolkien did say he originally set out to consciously create a religious work, because then he might suggest that Tolkien only threw in some religious elements to satisfy his Catholic ideology or appeal to some religious contingency. However, the fact that The Lord of the Rings was unconsciously a fundamentally religious and Catholic work just shows how deeply Christian thought lives in Tolkien's mind and writing! So, why is there no organized religion or explicit dogma in The Lord of the Rings? Why doesn't the story end with Gollum repenting and placing his faith in Eru Ilúvatar while the Newsboys fly in on the eagles? Why is the religious nowhere in particular to be found? What Tolkien tells us, and what a thoughtful reading will show us, is that the religious is everywhere. It is not a thing in the world, but the world in which everything takes place.
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